Liberty and Restrooms for All

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Common wisdom contends that there’s nothing like travel to make you truly appreciate home.I don’t know if that’s true in all respects, but there is one facet of life in the good old USA that I came to adore during my excursions across the pond, a feature of American culture that remains unequaled among the developing and developed countries of the world.

I speak, of course, of the availability of public restrooms.

I never knew how much I took the constant presence of restroom facilities for granted until I traveled abroad. In many places, public bathrooms just didn’t exist. And forget ducking into a restaurant or patisserie for quick relief—toilets in those places are reserved for patrons only. It is the height of rudeness to dash into someone’s business, avail yourself of the facilities, and dash back out. I can’t tell you how many uneaten pastries and unsipped cups of coffee I left in my wake as I crossed the European continent in search of a place to do my business.

There’s something about not knowing where or whether you’ll next be able to use the bathroom that makes you have to go all the time.

Nor do the rare accessible toilets always take the comforting and familiar white porcelain form to which I am accustomed. In many places, the “loo” is nothing more than a hole in the floor with a footplate on either side. Others are more of an outhouse-type structure. Trust me, though, when I say that by the time I found a place to potty, I usually did not care what it looked like. The majority of toilets for travelers seemed to be of the “pay and pee” variety, very similar to a public restroom in any large American venue, but with coin slots on the doors. I tried to keep a pocket full of jingling change with me at all times. Only once was I reduced to begging a stranger for a donation, which she promptly handed over with a sympathetic smile. I think she took one look at my crossed legs and panic-stricken face and decided it would be cheaper to help me out than to pay her dry-cleaning bill when I exploded.

Probably the most psychologically damaging public restrooms I encountered were in Paris. They consist of a sort of metal capsule with an electronic door. You put your francs in the slot, step through the door (which closes behind you), and do what you came to do as fast as humanly possible. Theoretically, these doors are timed to open automatically if you don’t emerge within fifteen minutes, but I swear that the one I used gave me a scant twenty seconds. I just barely managed to get my clothing rearranged over my delicate bits before the door slid noiselessly open and I was spot lit by the late afternoon sun in front of a crowd of grinning Parisians. Not my most poised moment as a suave and sophisticated world traveler.

I’d like to think that every sojourner to distant lands comes back with at least one good bathroom story. After all, the need to go is something we all share, no matter where we live. Fortunately, crossed legs and a panic-stricken face are easily translated into any language.

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10 responses »

  1. Oh my goodness! Yes!!! I didn’t encounter any of the self-opening restrooms in Paris, but, malheureusement, I was unfortunate enough to really really REALLY have to go while on the Champs Elysees, where I paid TWO EURO (that translated into about 3 and a half bucks!) for the public toilets. I should have known when the lobby had Salvador Dali sculptures in it. Every room (stall is no word for these luxury-loos) had its own THEME. I was in the ocean room. Set into the wall, behind plexiglass, was an artists soothing representation of all things related to the sea. Starfish, bleached out sand dollars, fancy jars with differnet coloured sand – imported from all corners of the earth, I’m sure, and painted mural backdrop.

    It was a far cry from the excruciatingly dirty gas station outhouse in smalltownsville, northern California, where – no kidding – tumbleweeds rolled down the street and stray dogs made you very nervous to pass down any side of the street for fear of getting mauled. The door hung off the hinges, and was held closed only by a bent and rusty nail at the top of the door. We would have used a differnet facility, but every other business in the town was boarded up. As it is, I don’t think those pumps really had gas in them…

  2. Heh. Great post! My favorite tale takes place between Ghana and Togo, where during a ten hour trip, there is ONE toilet. During my first few hours in a third world country, I found myself squatting behind some bushes, dust flying up around me, silently thanking my sister for stocking their car with rolls of toilet paper. On the way back to Ghana three weeks later, I was able to use the “bathroom” at the border, which consisted of two walls of wood and a divet in the ground for me to “aim” at. Good times. Good times.

  3. Although I don’t know where it is located, I’ve heard of a public restroom much like the one pictured in your post that is walled with one-way mirrors.

    The epitome of awkwardness.

    I love it.

  4. Ummm yuck. Anyway, I tagged you in this ‘thinking blogger’ thing I got tagged with because I DID tell you I’d send some readership over…

  5. I would be laughing hysterically if I had to pee in that thing.

    Awkward is being 4 months pregnant in Coba, Mexico, coordinating peeing without touching anything while holding one 5 peso square of TP on the mud wall to help you keep balance.

    Of three women, I, the pregant one, could pee the fastest and most efficiently. Talent.

  6. I learned at least one thing when travelling abroad–you go EVERY time the tour bus stops somewhere, right before you get back on the bus, even if “the facilities” are a hole in the ground and the money you spent only bought you two squares of TP!
    I’ve actually pondered the existence of the “squatty potty”. Can you imagine the average American being able to use one of those? I think there must be some set of muscles that you have to develop at an early age, and Americans no longer have that set! When we had to use the squatty potties, I found myself braced on the walls and wondering if I needed to get undressed first! I don’t think that is the way you are supposed to do it. The funny thing is, I think many foreigners look at our public toilets as disgusting because you have to touch the seat.
    Thanks for a funny post yet again. You are braver than me!

  7. Italy. Even the Italian part of Switzerland. I remember waiting in long long line at a rest stop (isn’t there always a line) and it was barely a hole in the ground…

  8. Funny but but the worst toilet I’ve ever been in was in California, USA. Balboa Beach to be exact – it was unlit, filthy, had non-functioning doorlocks, hypodermics littering the floor and there were gin+God-knows-what-else-soaked bums lurking round the entrance. But when a gal’s gotta go she’s gotta go so my husband came in and guarded me. It was free-to-pee though.

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